English Premier League July 17, 2008

A second-class competition

Eighteen teams for a "Premier" competition is at least ten too many, and 20 is utter lunacy. One Twenty20 competition per summer is quite sufficient

For Kent the only route out of bankruptcy is to commission a vast hotel and sports complex at the far end of the beautiful St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury © Getty Images

Anyone who truly believed Twenty20 cricket would be the vehicle to drive English cricket into the 21st century clearly forgot one crucial factor - the reactionary gentlefolk of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who have not yet progressed from the 19th. Wednesday's unveiling of the English Premier League was a squib as damp as those that spluttered on the Lord's outfield at the opening of the 1999 World Cup. The vested interests in the shires have snuffed out the greatest opportunity for change that the English game has ever known.

For a fleeting moment last week, there was a chance to create something groundbreaking - a competition that could re-establish England as a pivot of world cricket. MCC's chief executive, Keith Bradshaw, and the Surrey chairman, David Stewart, certainly thought so. They envisaged a tournament comprising nine teams, 57 matches and 25 days, hosted by the Test-class grounds but inclusive of the talents from the lesser counties. It was radical, but with estimated profits of £47 million for the first year alone, it wasn't merely workable, it had the means to rival the IPL as the premier domestic tournament in world cricket.

Instead, by refusing even to countenance a condensation of the teams involved, the ECB board has wilfully condemned the English game to a lifetime of second-class status. Eighteen teams for a "Premier" competition is at least ten too many, and 20 is utter lunacy. One Twenty20 competition per summer is quite sufficient; two in quick succession - and involving nine-tenths of the same competitors - defies any semblance of logic.

And yet, you wouldn't believe any of that to judge from the self-congratulation of the county executives, who are tripping over each other to proclaim how "exciting" they find the new proposals - even Stewart, who was last week being accused of treachery, is now, all of a sudden, "delighted". Back in 2002, a whole year before the Twenty20 Cup was born (out of desperation, lest we forget), Wisden Cricketers' Almanack described county cricket as "a confederacy of mediocrity" in urgent need of reform. Six years on, that confederacy is alive and thriving, and the last chance for change has just been slogged out of the park.

The pity is that the counties - particularly the have-nots, paralysed by fear and loathing of their more marketable neighbours - have not only cooked their golden goose but neutered the gander as well. When Giles Clarke coined the term "EPL" at the beginning of the season, it was a deliberate choice of acronym. That is the moniker by which England's Premier League football competition is known throughout India, a tournament that is by far and away the most watched, supported and money-spinning on the planet. Now, India will never be rivalled as the most significant market in world cricket, but as football's EPL has demonstrated, quality has a habit of transcending culture.

England merely had to find a formula that maximised the country's numerous assets, and let market economics do the rest. Suffice to say they blew it.

Instead, and inevitably, all radical notions were mown down before any debate could get underway. Last Friday's leak of the Bradshaw-Stewart plan was no accident. As Jim Cumbes, the CEO of Lancashire (who supported the proposal) said while resigning his post as chairman of the county chief executives, the counties have been gripped by "panic and paranoia". Like a clique of nimby-ish parish councillors faced with the need to regenerate their rural way of life, they've buttressed the doors to the village hall, rather than risk an awkward meeting with the developers.

County cricket is proud to be a rural pastime, but that is both its greatest asset and its most fundamental flaw. Ironically the reigning Twenty20 champions, Kent, best epitomise the paradox. The timeless beauty of the St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury is soon to be nothing more than a soothing memory, because the county has decided the only route out of bankruptcy is to commission a vast hotel and sports complex at the far end of the ground, and sell off a further portion of land to a housing estate.

The pity is that the counties - particularly the have-nots, paralysed by fear and loathing of their more marketable neighbours - have not only cooked their golden goose but neutered the gander as well. Like a clique of nimby-ish parish councillors faced with the need to regenerate their rural way of life, they've buttressed the doors to the village hall, rather than risk an awkward meeting with the developers

All over the country, the same development woes are being addressed - Taunton was a partial building site during the South Africa tour match earlier this month, while Worcestershire may need an entirely new home if it is to recover from the desperate floods at New Road in 2007. And yet, given Twenty20's unrivalled financial clout, a solution was there to be grasped. A prudent acceptance that some venues are quite simply more viable than others could have safeguarded the non-Test counties' income and enshrined their bucolic tranquility for evermore.

What would it have mattered if, as a result, the gap had been widened between the haves and have-nots? The likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire have been living on borrowed time (not to mention funds) for decades, and no one but a handful of county diehards would mourn any further loss of status. Besides, the cat's cradle of complications that is the ECB's constitution means that a modicum of compromise in the boardroom could have led to an enrichment of every level of the game from grassroots upwards.

At present, any official tournament must be open to all 18 first-class counties, and it requires a minimum of 30 votes to change that legislation. The idea would therefore have had to be sold to the minor counties as well, who in turn could have secured a life-changing cut of the profits. Instead, the plan was blindly trashed before it had been read, and so all there is left to do is pick the positives out of the measures that have been adopted.

To be fair, the EPL as it stands could yet prove a qualified success. England is certainly attractive to the players, for reasons that extend beyond the strength of the pound. With the exception of the Caribbean, hardly any big cricket takes place in June anywhere else in the world, so none of the participants would require a "window" to be created in their schedules. Also, the venues are so close to one another that the globetrotting players could take a break from airport departure lounges for the duration of their stay.

Most crucially of all, the English time zone (as football has discovered) is tailormade for the Indian market, with matches beginning at 9.30pm India time and ending shortly past midnight. Set against that, however, is the difficulty of persuading people to watch. The beauty of the IPL was the richness of the talent in each side - with only eight franchises to choose from, the best players were on show in each and every game.

In the English version, however, that talent will be stretched across 20 teams and two divisions, and even with three overseas players per squad, that adds up to a minimum of 60 big names. There are barely that number in the entire world game, and half of them will never actually get to feature in the premier division of the Premier League. When you consider that a salary cap is also being considered to further hinder the free market, the stage is being set for an awful lot of mediocrity.

But if that's the way the ECB want to play it, there's clearly no way to dissuade them. "Broadcasters in this country and in Asia are interested in county sides - they are not interested in made-up sides," was Clarke's explanation, which is a staggering misrepresentation of the facts of the IPL. The Rajasthan Royals may have begun as a list of names on a sheet of paper, but they went on to become an extension of the legend of Shane Warne. Ultimately it's the players that will make or break this tournament, assuming the administrators haven't broken it already.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Lionel on July 19, 2008, 13:38 GMT

    Mr Miller, I agree with EVERY WORD you write. What a pity Mr Boycott, Gower Botham et al, continue to promote our County Mediochraty. A man landing from Mars a couple of weeks ago, and listening to those guys, would have believed that England were world champions after beating a sub standard New Zealand side (their best players bailing out to join ICL and IPL) home and away. Will they continue to tell us how fantastic the 18 Counties are at developing great Test players, after we are thrashed once again by Australia next year. Wait for it......and all the excuses!!! Yes the ECB (or should I say the County Chairman) have once again failed to grasp the nettle and move English cricket forward. The Bradshaw/Stewart proposals could have been a first step to creating truly 'Premier' competitions, not only twenty20, but one day and County leagues as well. Looks like we will have to wait a few more years for common sense to prevail!

  • Patrick on July 19, 2008, 13:01 GMT

    Just one more note of pessimism - has anyone noticed that the proposed launch date of June 2010 will clash directly with the next soccer World Cup. I wonder what effect that will have on attendances, tv coverage and sponsorship. I'm surprised this factor has either been completely overlooked or is being ignored.

  • Jon on July 19, 2008, 7:55 GMT

    I agree that two Twenty20 tournaments is one too many. However, I can't accept your point on reducing the number of sides to just nine. In fact, you make the point yourself about football's Premier league being the most watched and supported around the globe. How many teams in the Premier League? 20. Behind them a range of divisions with most cities and towns having a representative, i.e. providing a sense of identity. We need cricket to expand not shrink. As one of your so-called 'handful of county diehards', ie a Leicestershire fan, I would have little interest in following a competition if Leicester were not in it. What's more important: the development of cricket or making money? Its a pity that the UK editor of Cricinfo has to use terms like 'mediocrity' to describe English cricket. Fortunately, there are thousands who don't agree.

  • anish on July 19, 2008, 1:31 GMT

    I think that the IPL has taken over the 20/20 domestic stage. There is no point for England to create thier own 20/20 comp beacause, although they have the facilities and a great administration, they dont have the money. They don't have 1 million passionate viewers gluing their eyes to the TV. India's number one sport is cricket and england's is football. There is no way anybody will take over the English Premier League, so what's the point of making a league in a country where cricket is second-class and where cricket is poor at the grassroots. I strongly recommend to the ECB to take back their decision of creating a league beacause it will bring them more loss than gain. Dont destroy cricket in the country where it originated. Please.

  • Andrew on July 18, 2008, 19:55 GMT

    When England announced at the start of the series against South Africa that they were unwilling to participate in a trial of a referrals system, I knew they would come to regret it. Strauss and Collingwood in the First Test and Cook earlier today were all on the end of wrong (and badly wrong at that) decisions, all of which would have been overturned on referral. Why do people rave about Bowden's quality as an umpire? - he's a showman first, a competent official an increasingly distant second. To make matters worse South Africa appear to believe that a referral system is in place (at least for them). Why else was Amla reprieved? Yes he wasn't out (but neither were Strauss, Collingwood or Cook). The onfield umpire's decision is final (right or wrong) and Bowden and Harper sacrificed their authority today to a bullying South African captain (who should be disciplined - ideally a one match ban) and by doing so set a very dangerous precedent for the rest of the series.

  • Saptarshi on July 18, 2008, 12:12 GMT

    As an Indian I feel very good that other fellow Indians are wishing well to the ECB with their new venture. I wonder how many from the west had such intentions when the IPL was about to start. This blog in a way is revealing the true colours of many. Wonder if Gideon about to write something

  • Harish on July 18, 2008, 5:35 GMT

    England had it all...beautiful venues, great atmosphere, perfect subcontinental viewing times...and they had to blow it away.

    No Indian viewer has a preference for matches played in India. We know that the stadiums are sub-standard and the administration pathetic. We love the beautiful grounds of England and Australia. England truly muffed it up.

  • Manohar on July 18, 2008, 3:36 GMT

    It was an expected move I guess and it can't be more stupid.. something that the English cricket will regret for decades to come. Honestly, I hope it fails badly enough! Watch out for those "stars" of the English cricket... oops! you can't cross the fence and hop in to IPL!!

  • Steve on July 17, 2008, 19:47 GMT

    There seems to be a huge amount of cynicism around about the new Twenty20 proposals - a field day for those who like nothing other than to have a moan. I totally disagree and think the new proposals are excellent - 4 day cricket is preserved as that feeds the test side, the pointless and utterly dull Pro40 is got rid of at last and we have the entertainment of Twenty20 in its place. Why can't we have two Twenty20 competitions? Football has the FA Cup and the League Cup, for sure the FA Cup is the most important but both have their place. The new structure will work and give all types of cricket fans what they want.

  • Andrew on July 17, 2008, 19:21 GMT

    I am reading "Pommies" by William Buckland, which should be recommended reading for all administrators. Its a forensic financial analysis of English cricket, which recommends a root and branch rethink of the professional game in this country. Mr Buckland suggests that the focus of the game must centre on creating long-term success for the England team in all forms of the International game, rather than the case currently (personified by the announcement of the ridiculously bloated EPL)of supporting the 18 first class counties come what may. A huge opportunity for change has been missed and this announcement has the potential to condemn England to being a middling international team for years to come, who cost an increasing fortune to watch assuming you can get a ticket in the first place. Heads should have rolled for this, but instead they will all be patting themselves on the back entranced by Stanford's millions.

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